The U.S. Forest Service today published a Federal Register Notice seeking public comment on formalizing a proposed policy to expand the mutually beneficial work it conducts with American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, and Alaska Native corporations.
“Tribes are an integral part of our American story, leaders in our natural resource heritage and the original stewards of the land we hold so dear,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “These proposed policy updates will help us engage with tribes in more well-rounded way by making the related work we do part of every employee’s education and responsibility.”
Tidwell encourages the public to review the proposed policy and provide comments to help improve the final rule. The Federal Register Notice includes information about how to comment.
The agency’s policies are being revised because of changes in federal authorities and regulations, the need to implement U.S. Department of Agriculture guidance and the pending expiration of an interim directive on tribal consultation. The agency also wants to ensure Forest Service staffs know the legal and historical background of the agency’s relationship with federally recognized tribes so that they can help build and expand partnerships across all lands.
The proposed rule also would expand agency work beyond consultation to encourage staff to work closely with Native Hawaiians, American Indian and Alaska Native individuals, communities, inter-tribal organizations, enterprises and educational institutions.
Federally recognized tribes are acknowledged as possessing certain inherent rights of self-government (i.e., tribal sovereignty). According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federally recognized tribe is an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with the responsibilities, powers, limitations and obligations attached to that designation. The Tribes are eligible for funding and services from the federal government, which includes the Forest Service.
All over the country, the Forest Service is working with tribes on archeological surveys. In the southeast, the Forest Service is training American Indians to conduct archeological surveys on lands managed by the agency; lands that at one time belonged to their ancestors. Similarly, in California the agency is using tribal fire crews for prescribed burns and to fight wildfires. As well, Forest Service is working with Indian tribes throughout the United States on agency lands to fight threats, such as fire, insects, disease and other adverse effects of climate change. This is especially helpful on Forest Service lands that border tribal lands.
At present, there are 567 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages. Historically, most of today’s federally recognized tribes received federal recognition status through treaties, acts of Congress, presidential executive orders or other federal administrative actions, or federal court decisions. The estimated population of American Indians and Alaska Natives is estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau at about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population.
Approximately 52 million acres of land are held in trust by the U.S. for various Indian tribes and individuals. The largest is the 16 million-acre Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Of all the acres held in trust for tribes and individuals, nearly 3,000 miles border Forest Service lands.
“It’s not just our duty but our honor to work with the peoples indigenous to this land,” said Jim Hubbard, the agency’s deputy chief, State and Private Forestry, which oversees the Office of Tribal Relations. “Indian forest lands are often better-managed based on thousands of years of traditional practices. We have learned a lot from these practices, and we want to learn more as well as provide tribes with the support they deserve.”
The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the U.S. Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation's clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency also has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live.